Notre Dame was exciting and ‘the gauntlet’ was fun. But ever since Michigan announced itself as a contender on national TV against Wisconsin six weeks ago, the Wolverines have had one game circled, starred, and highlighted on their calendars. That game — The Game — is finally here.
Podcast: Previewing & predicting Michigan vs. Ohio State
Ohio State is the opponent that defines Michigan’s season no matter the circumstances but Saturday’s iteration The Game will define this season even more than normal.
A win would give them their first ever Big Ten East division title and an opportunity to play 7-4 Northwestern for a crack at their first conference championship since 2004. With a win in Indianapolis, their national title aspirations will almost certainly be carried into next month’s college football playoff. A loss and all of that goes away. 2018 — currently blossoming with hope and credited with reviving Michigan’s program — would join the heap of seasons that ended prematurely in Columbus.
To the uninitiated, this may seem like impassioned hyperbole but there is no overstating the importance that Saturday carries. With the Buckeyes entering as the nation’s 10thranked team and their playoff hopes hanging by a thread, there are colossal implications for both teams but there is no denying that The Game means more for the Wolverines.
Ohio State will survive with a loss. It will go to a New Years’ Six Bowl for the sixth consecutive season and begin next year with renewed national championship expectations. For Michigan, a loss would eradicate three months of optimism and good feelings around Ann Arbor. The tired trope that the Wolverines can’t win big games would be reignited after it was temporarily quieted by last month’s trio of top 25 wins.
Over the two decades since Michigan’s last national championship, every Wolverines’ team has heard talk of the program’s purported demise. That talk, which started as drastic overreaction, has become hard to ignore. They have lost 13 of 14 to the Buckeyes with no Big Ten titles in that span after winning 21 of the previous 36. Michigan’s last win in Columbus came on the back of Drew Henson in 2000. Its last Rose Bowl trip — back when the Rose Bowl was the Rose Bowl — was 12 seasons ago.
A loss on Saturday and 2018 joins 2006 and 2016 as seasons when the Wolverines went to Columbus in pole position to play for a national championship but came up excruciatingly short. Despite ten consecutive victories, the narrative of Michigan’s demise would persist. A win and that all changes. Every narrative would be thrown out the window the moment the clock reads zero. 2018 would instantly be propelled into program lore as its most successful season in over two decades.
And with the way the two teams’ seasons have unfolded, a win is, for once, the expectation. This isn’t 2006 or 2016, when both teams entered as equals. Ohio State’s playoff hopes are alive — but just barely. It came one throw from losing to 5-6 Maryland last weekend and has underwhelmed all season while the Wolverines have dominated.
There is no rational reason for Michigan to lose. What the Wolverines lack in offensive firepower — and they still average 36.6 points per game — they make up for on the other side of the ball, where they have legitimate claim to being the nation’s best defense. The Buckeyes, meanwhile, rank outside the top 45 in points, yards, rushing yardage, and passing yardage allowed per game.
On paper, Saturday shouldn’t be much of a contest. But if The Game were played on paper, Michigan would have won more than one of the past 14 meetings.
On Saturday at Ohio Stadium, the Wolverines need to prove they can win in real life too — because if they can’t do it now, with everything tilted in their favor, the question becomes ‘will they ever?’
|Ant Wright||Ohio State||31-27|